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elizabeth joyce cancer

What It Really Feels Like To Be A Cancer “Survivor.”

I am a cancer survivor.

What sort of image does that conjure? What one word comes to mind? Tough? Strong? Brave? After all, in the narrative we place around cancer, it is an epic battle and cancer patients are warriors fighting for their lives. These analogies serve to inspire.

But, the truth is, I never felt like a warrior. And now, when I think about the fact that I am a cancer survivor, the first word that comes to my mind — the first feeling — is: afraid.

This wasn’t always the case. When my cancer was newly in remission, the word and feeling would have probably been ‘relief.’


Elizabeth Joyce

The longer I am a survivor, the more precarious my situation feels.

I was diagnosed with Stage II Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of 24. An “easy” cancer with a 10-year survival rate of 80%.

It was very likely that my cancer would go into remission with treatment. It was very likely that I would continue to survive for at least 10 years.

It is also very likely that’s not the end of it.

Every treatment I received to rid me of that cancer was, in fact, introducing new threats. Delayed threats. These are often called “Late Effects of Treatment” or “Secondary” diseases.

Radiation directed at my chest increased my chance of developing breast cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer, and thyroid cancer. Radiation damage to the blood vessels in my neck increased my risk of stroke.

Chemotherapy pumped through my veins was both cardio-toxic and pulmonary-toxic, weakening my heart and lungs and increasing my risk of developing related diseases.

The treatments also put me at a higher risk of developing Acute Myeloid Leukemia and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

At this point, the odds that I will have a recurrence of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, my primary cancer, are extremely low. However, with each passing year, the likelihood that some secondary issue will surface, increases.


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It has been 13 years since I was told my cancer was in remission. It seems like a lifetime ago. Long enough, now, that I can go about my daily life for most of the year without cancer even entering my thoughts.

But, when something triggers my memory, forces me to recall the fact that I was a cancer patient all those years ago, a flood of anxiety engulfs me.

And, each year, from October, when my family and I participate in an annual cancer walk, to February, when I have my annual follow-up exams, the anxiety builds. Like a constant ticking in my ear, growing louder and louder, reminding me of the time bomb in my body. I don’t know when it is set to detonate. I don’t know how it will explode.

But, I know it is there. A threat lurking just beneath the surface of my normal life.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Thankfully, I’ve made it to another February. My follow-up exams have all come back clear this year. I get a reprieve. I’ll be basking in a flood of relief and hopefulness as I settle back into my day-to-day life for several months of hardly giving cancer a thought.

This story originally appeared on Medium